On December 4, 1999, Mount Carmel Church of Somerset, New Jersey, voted to withdraw from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). According to its pastor, Dr. Robert Cameron, precipitating the move to break the bonds of fellowship was an unwillingness by the PCA to take positions on various matters, especially with regard to the doctrine of creation.
The doctrine of creation came to the fore at the General Assembly level via a complaint lodged by Mt. Carmel Church against New Jersey Presbytery. The complaint took issue with the failure of New Jersey Presbytery to recognize that adherence to anything other than six literal days of creation is an exception to the Confessional Standards. The 1998 General Assembly approved, by about a two-to-one margin, the majority report from the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), which maintained that not affirming six literal days of creation does not constitute an exception to the Standards.
The creation issue for the Mt. Carmel Session was bound up with the way in which the complaint was handled. Dr. Cameron alleges that the SJC portrayed the complaint was against Presbytery procedure. However, the pastor states that "there was not one word of procedure in our complaint"; and he insists that "the delegates on the floor didn't know what they were voting on." About a year ago, Mt. Carmel circularized a letter to all the presbyteries in the PCA, noting what it viewed as the irregularities in the way that the SJC characterized the dispute. It was the Session's way of trying to set the record straight, since very few commissioners ever see the original complaint or the briefs in the case; instead, the SJC itself is authorized to style the complaint.
But while the allegedly unethical manner of dealing with the Session's complaint was painful, it was not determinative in terms of the decision to leave. The elders decided to recommend withdrawal from the PCA because of the broader issue of the doctrine itself and because of concern that the denomination seems "not willing to take positions on matters." In Bob Cameron's eyes, "We [in the PCA] don't want to debate these things, we just want to listen to the theologians." He questions the wisdom of the Assembly spending thousands of dollars on the Creation Study Committee, when to him the Scripture is clear that God created in six days. The pastor is also concerned about the fact that the Assembly voted that any findings of this ad interim committee would not be binding on the church-another instance, in his view, of where the denomination refuses to take positions on matters which, to him, seem quite clear. "I defended the Session's complaint on the basis of Scripture," claims Dr. Cameron, while the Presbytery respondent based his response on the views of various people who are in the denomination and whose views are tolerated. Another instance of disappointment and alarm which Pastor Cameron cites is the John Wood situation, where, to date, efforts to bring the case against the Knoxville pastor over the issue of women preaching have been frustrated by the SJC officers.
Because of this situation, the Session therefore concluded "that instead of being continually upset, we would just move on and preach the gospel." According to Dr. Cameron, "We feel that we were deceived coming into the PCA," in that the congregation was told that the PCA is a "confessional church." Shortly after the church joined the denomination in the late 1980s, the congregation discovered that there were numerous places where the PCA allowed "exceptions" to the Westminster Standards.
On the regional level, New Jersey Presbytery about a year ago reversed itself and declared that anything other than adhering to six literal days of creation is an exception to the Standards. This reversal came after the 1997 restructure of the Presbytery, when its northern half was given to the new Metropolitan New York Presbytery.
But despite the fact that the restructured Presbytery was willing to adopt Mt. Carmel's view, the Session has not been satisfied with the regional body. Indeed, Dr. Cameron said that the elders were "very upset with some of the actions by New Jersey Presbytery that we thought were violations of the Book of Church Order." He spoke of a judicial case in which the Session had administratively censured a woman, who thereupon issued an "appeal" to the Presbytery. The Presbytery appointed a committee, and later a commission, to deal with the "appeal," instead of ruling it out of order, as the BCO says that only someone who has submitted to a trial may "appeal" a decision. (According to Pastor Cameron, no trial had been held.) Pastor Cameron said that the Session declined to meet with the Presbytery committee. When asked how the Session could administratively censure someone, Dr. Cameron stated that he was not sure of the Constitutional warrant for the judicial action taken by the Session.
More recently, the Session of Mt. Carmel was at loggerheads with the Presbytery over the rescinding of a call which the congregation had issued to the Rev. Keith Graham as Associate Pastor. Mr. Graham, who resigned as Pastor of Locktown Presbyterian Church, Flemington, New Jersey, in order to accept the call to Mt. Carmel, had been in the employ of the Mt. Carmel Church for two years as an office manager. The call to him as Associate Pastor had been issued last summer, and approved by the Presbytery at its September stated meeting. But before the installation could occur, the elders decided unilaterally to rescind the call from the congregation.
Dr. Cameron defends this action by citing the BCO provision about the Session having the right to make decisions in the best spiritual interests of the congregation. He stated that subsequent to the issuance of the call to Mr. Graham, the elders had discovered things about him that, in their estimation, made him unfit to fill a pastoral role in the church. Pastor Cameron suggested that the Session did not want to have a congregational meeting to rescind the call, because that would force the Session to air the "dirty laundry" regarding Mr. Graham before the congregation. Dr. Cameron, who is black, said: "We don't air our difficulties in public-black people don't do that." He stated: "Most black people were upset with Anita Hill," not only because she waited eight years to bring charges against Clarence Thomas, but also because she brought that matter out into the open. Pastor Cameron said that he revealed openly to New Jersey Presbytery the rationale for the elders' decision to rescind the call, only after the court insisted on knowing the reasons.
According to Mr. Graham, Dr. Cameron "did bring out some things that were of a personal nature but I think in the opinion of myself and others were rather petty. . . . The one issue that was raised that I agreed with him about is the issue of my weight. . . . It's a problem I've had all my life. Right now, I'm working on this before the Lord. . . . They knew about my weight when they issued the call. . . . When they wanted to get rid of me, then they raised it as an issue.
"Then there were other issues that when they brought them to my attention at the end of September in a meeting [with Pastor Cameron and two elders], I thought of the movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, because people whom I thought I knew seemed suddenly to change."
According to Keith Graham, one of the issues raised was that he didn't seem to notice needed repairs to the church building-a piece of carpet that needed replacing, and a crack in the plaster. Another issue was with regard to a discipline matter on which the Session had previously ruled but which was still before the court when the Associate Pastor-elect began meeting with the Session. Mr. Graham expressed his opinion in the matter, essentially agreeing with what the Session had determined. However, Mr. Graham says that the Clerk of Session told him that he should not be making his own judgment on the case, but submit to the previous judgment simply because the elders said so.
Further creating concern among the ruling elders, according to Mr. Graham, was his desire to sing psalms in public worship and his openness to explore adopting the Presbyterian position of exclusive psalmody. He broached the topic at a private gathering with the two ruling elders over Labor Day weekend last year-just a few weeks before he was informed that there was a problem with regard to his continuing at Mt. Carmel Church.
Particularly galling to Mr. Graham was the fact that the idea of his becoming a pastor at Mt. Carmel came from the elders there, not from himself. Mr. Graham says that although he was in the employ of the church as an administrative assistant, he did not aspire to succeed Dr. Cameron upon his expected retirement. Rather, Mr. Graham said that the elders of Mt. Carmel approached him and said that they were interested in his becoming Associate Pastor with the expectation of his eventually becoming Senior Pastor when Dr. Cameron retired.
Because of the interest shown him by the Mt. Carmel Church, and based on the unanimous election by the congregation, he resigned from his pastorate at Locktown. Now that the call has been rescinded, he has been dependent upon the benevolence of New Jersey Presbytery, which, he said, "very graciously and shockingly agreed to compensate me in the amount I would have received from the Mt. Carmel Church." However, that support from the Presbytery, which began in November, will cease at the end of February. Accordingly, Mr. Graham is having to look into the possibility of getting a job in his old line of employment-that of being a commercial driver.
Mt. Carmel Church, which was organized in 1979 as a Reformed Episcopal congregation, transferred into the PCA in 1987, along with its organizing pastor, Bob Cameron. The church was a PCA mission work for two years, before being organized as a PCA congregation in 1989.
Mt. Carmel's corporate charter stipulates that a vote to withdraw from a denomination must be by a two-thirds vote. Dr. Cameron states that this provision demonstrates how seriously the church regards denominational disaffiliation, and that the church did not take the matter to leave the PCA lightly.
At an October 1999 meeting, a vote to leave the PCA failed by two votes. At the meeting on December 4th-ironically, the twenty-sixth anniversary of the founding of the PCA-the requisite supermajority was achieved.
Although the church is now independent, Dr. Cameron remains as a ministerial member of New Jersey Presbytery.
Dr. Cameron, one of the few African-American pastors
in the PCA, is the author of The Last Pew on the Left,
a book which attacks racism in America's churches. He has had
a radio ministry throughout the Metropolitan New York area for
several years. He also serves on the Board of Greenville (S.
C.) Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Mt. Carmel Church
350 Franklin Blvd.
Somerset, New Jersey 08873